SCUD Seizure Raises Tricky Questions

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SCUD missiles were found under sacks of powdered cement on board a North Korean ship

The decision by the U.S. to hand over 15 SCUD missiles to Yemen after interdicting them aboard a North Korean vessel on the high seas underscores the legal gray area in which the incident occurred. It was maritime irregularities aboard the SCUD-bearing vessel So San — nationality and papers not being in order, a false manifest and the vessel's refusal to submit to inspection — that allowed the Spanish navy, acting on a U.S. intelligence tip, to seize it in international waters in the Arabian sea. Those irregularities, and the fact that its unlisted cargo of 15 SCUD missiles bound for Yemen was hidden under thousands of bags of cement certainly conveys an air of contraband, but Yemen immediately insisted that it had purchased the missiles in an above-board transaction with North Korea, and that such a transaction violated no laws. Washington decided to hand over the missiles because there was no legal basis to hold them, although U.S. officials still have many questions over the transaction. The legal gray area in which the interdiction occurred highlights the complexities of new era in which the U.S. aims to prevent and preempt the emergence of security threats, sometimes in instances for which the rules may be a little hazy.

In the case of the 15 SCUDS aboard the So San, the recipient is a U.S. ally and isn't denying the purchase. And despite the efforts of the U.S. and many other countries to curb missile proliferation, the sale of conventional weapons is not in itself illegal. Yemen on Tuesday protested the seizure of the missile shipment, and demanded its return, and after talks with U.S. officials Washington agreed to hand them over. But the procurement of the SCUDS breaks a promise U.S. officials say Yemen has made to refrain from buying missiles and parts from North Korea, and could cast a chill on the country's relations with Washington. Yemen has long been a stronghold of al-Qaeda, but has since 9/11 worked hard to ally itself with the U.S. war on terrorism. Bush administration officials emphasized on Wednesday that Yemen remains an ally in good standing in the war on terror. But questions raised by the missile incident may bring greater scrutiny of Yemen's performance as a U.S. ally.

Yemen claims the missiles, shipped along with high-explosive conventional warheads, had been ordered some time ago for its army, which has a small preexisting stock of SCUDS. Some of the weapons had previously been used in Yemen's civil war in 1994. The Soviet-designed SCUD-B with a range of some 200 miles is a common item in the arsenals of the Middle East. They're a 1950s-vintage technology no longer in production in Russia, although North Korea and other countries have continued to manufacture and improve the system. SCUD-Bs of the type suspected of being carried on the So San carry no onboard guidance system — like giant, rocket-powered artillery shells, they are simply pointed in the direction of their target and fired at an optimal angle based on their burn rate. As the Gulf War showed, targeting difficulties made the SCUD an ineffective military weapon, although such imperfections would not diminish its appeal to terrorists. (That said, terrorist groups are not typically in the habit of acquiring such heavy conventional weaponry, because they're difficult to hide and deploying them requires extensive manpower and training.)

Fear of the SCUDS falling into the hands of terrorists may be one reason Washington chose to intercept them. Although Yemen has allied closely with the U.S. in the wake of 9/11, it remains a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity. The weakness of its government and the influence of Islamist groups certainly raises a concern that equipment shipped to the Yemeni military could, in the long run, fall into the hands of terrorists. Yemen's backing of Iraq during the first Gulf War may also have left U.S. officials concerned at the fact that it was acquiring such weapons at a time of mounting tension in the Gulf. Such concerns might be amplified by the fact that Yemen faces no external military threats — its topography alone makes it a difficult country to contemplate invading. Its primary security concern is the domestic threat of Islamist terrorism, and obviously the SCUDs have little use in that battle. Despite recent rapprochement, Yemen has long had a tense relations with its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh will share Washington's dismay at the news that the government in Yemen is trying to import medium-range missiles from North Korea.

Many questions remain unanswered about the So San and its cargo. But clearly, the seizure of the weapons could be categorized as a relatively peaceful act of "counter-proliferation," an integral part of the Bush administration's new national security doctrine of preempting threats. And like the war on terrorism, that's a game whose rules are being formulated in real time.